Asia Pacific 2010 - 2011

Golden and brown leaves falling back home. Migratory birds are leaving. Time to take off for me too. The initial plan was to cycle from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur, yet it went all different. And good. 6 months on the road, meeting great people, dwelling in great places, sharing great experiences.

The trip starts with a really stupid crash on my bicycle back in my home town the day I leave. With a hurting wrist I carry my bikebag and the other stuff from train to train and finally into the Frankfurt airport. Some hours flight, a long stopover in Dubai Airport. Arriving in Kuala Lumpur at night, bound to take of for Vietnam the next morning. From the regular airport by bus to the LCCT, where I find nice company to talk about Nepal and Thailand all night. While boarding the plane, my group gets lost walking the runways, ends up on the wrong plane. Sleep deprivated as I am, I only laugh about this.

Reaching Hanoi in the morning. Wrist still hurst like mad. Well, why not take a taxi into town and then a bus directly on Cat Ba and relax a few days in Halong bay, I think. And so I start to pay my education fee to some smart Vietnamese, with no idea about the prices nor exchange rates. Eventually I reach Hai Phong by bus. The driver, who sold me a ticket to Cat Ba, drops my bags out of the bus and disappears. A flock of motorbike and taxi drivers surrounds me and wants to "give me a lift". The staff at the bus terminal isn't really helpfull either. No one really speaking English. I'm tired, but determined not to waste any more money on them. Start to assamble my bike right in front of the bus terminal, still surrounded by a dozen of smiling kids and another dozen of taxi drivers who touch basically every part of the bike. Scary... The constant stream of horning motorbikes and busses and lorries just ahead of me is even more scarry. Finally, the bike is ready and working well - my biggest concern is calmed. But where is the ferry port? No signs visible at all. One of the guys points to a direction... Off I go, eventually getting the drive and enjoy the messy traffic.

A somewhat English speaking lady brings me - not to the ferry port, but to a ticket office. Eager to get to Cat Ba, I pay 15$ for bus rides, and a speedboat transfer. Anything but happy I arrive just after a misty orange sunset on the island, get another bus ride to Cat Ba town and end up in a hotel on the main street. That first day in Vietnam ends with a big headache, probably from exhaustion. Motorbikes horn all night in front of my hotel, it seems. When I unpack my bags, I cannot find my new camera anymore. This is not Japan, I think by myself...

Floating fish farm house in Halong bay

Next morning I discover a nice bakery just next door, the splendid view of the (noisy) harbor and the limestone rocks behind the line of hotels along the street. Two nice small beaches just half a mile away from the town, swimming in the warm sea in the morning sun. That's Asia, that's what I wanted. Spent days then cruising Halong Bay on houseboats and kajaking, hanging out on tiny beaches on small Robinson islands and collecting Shiva eye stones. Trecking in the Cat Ba National Park. Meet the right people in town, get the flow, fall in love and keep postponing my departure. Heaven, sort of. Why leave?

Climbing beach

After 8 nights on Cat Ba I'm ready to take off. Bike is packed, wrist seems to be okay, time to rock! Almost 20 miles to the ferry port, up and down. Slow boat to the next island, another 5 miles crossing laid back villages and crop fields towards the next ferry port. Children waving at me. Good vibes. Another ferry to the industrial area of Haiphong. Get myself a somewhat cheap digital camera as replacement for the disappeared good one. A few hours of daylight left, and I jump into the madness of Vietnamese traffic out of Haiphong, onto the Highway towards Ninh Binh. Motorbikes are barely faster than me, the nonstop-horning trucks and busses suck way more. Ghost riders are common, as well as sudden stopping of vehicles without indication. However, I make excessive use of my bell and bang through. As everyone, basically only watching what happens in front of me and hoping the people behind me do the same. Self organizing chaos. Happy to have a helmet. At 4:30, I stop in a town on the busy road, half sick from the noise and the fumes. Get a room for a few bucks. The guesthouse owners (or at least their daughter plus her husband) speak good English and invite me after diner for a bit of Karaoke singing. Wonderfull night. I should marry a Vietnamese girl, that's what they recommend. I'm not sure about that now...

Safety first please On the road

Next day – 65 miles to go to Ninh Binh on that very highway. Earplugs and Beatles help a lot to deal better with the traffic noise. I meet an Japanese speaking young man by accident and talk for an hour, and learn a lot about Vietnam. Easy riding today, only flat and straight good roads. I reach Ninh Binh in the early afternoon, find the first really nice Cafe bar and end up with a surprise invitation to a Vietnamese wedding for diner. Lucky to escape the heavy drinking just before loosing my orientation.

Two nice days in the best hotel in town, going around Ninh Binh on a rental motorbike with my travelling sister, first getting trapped in beautifull yet annoying tourist spots and eventually escaped to get some first taste of rural Vietnam off the beaten track. Then it is time to say good bye...

Buddha Cave A row of boats entering the famous caves of Ninh Binh

After a couple of relaxed nights and days in Ninh Binh I moved on, heading west for the border to Laos at Na Meo. Soon after leaving the highway, the scenery changed a lot. Almost no traffic out here, easy riding without horns and fumes for a nice change. A couple of small concrete houses every once in a while between the sugarcane, rice and corn fields. Banana and Papaya trees here and there, and in a little distance forested mountains and giant limestone rocks. In the middle of nowhere a neat and cozy cafe shop with a nice garden and bamboo huts to sit in. Shall I stay here? I move on towards Cam Thye, and end up in an old colonial style hotel with orchids hanging from the balcony. On a noisy and smelly road again...

Kids on the street

Next day, I head for Quan Hoa, again on small roads without traffic. Farmers plow rice paddies with the water buffaloes in the small valleys between the steep limestone rocks. There's more and more wooden pile houses the more I move on, and few towns with shops only. Steady ascending. Just after lunchtime I reach Quan Hoa, have a stopover and a coffee in a neat wooden "Eco Guesthouse" off the road beside a big river. Looking at the map, it's approximately 50 miles to go to the border, which I decide to do tomorrow. Finish for today. Two little boys join me for a walk and show me where to swim in the river...

Pile house in Vietnam

Struggling to find my road to Na Meo next morning. The locals all send me 12 miles back to where I came from today, to take that road. Steep uphill from there for an hour, a truck collapsed on the road and a crane is maintaining the truck. The entire road is blocked, yet the locals help me to bypass the scene. Jungle, small wooden pile houses here and there, terrace rice paddies in the small valleys. Up and up the road goes. The locals take bamboo from the woods, cut it into meter long pieces and half them, pile them up. A few Eastgerman trucks bring the piles back down. Sunset, and still 20 miles to go to the town at the border. No guesthouses nor restaurants out here anymore, and the road is just steep ups and downs and serpentines in the jungle. I'm tired, stop by a concrete house with official symbols in a very small village and ask for a room to stay. The friendly silent man shows me the meeting room of the house, making a gesture I could stay here. Providing even a diner, and two shoots of the local liqueur. I'm more than happy with that! We talk with paper and pen and hands. Only one lamp in the police station, and an early rest. My savior refuses any money. A firefly in the moonlight.

Last miles towards the border in the early morning, some trouble with the payment for the visa due to the old dollar pieces I'm carrying. 55 miles till Xam Nua, the first real town where I expect to get Laos money. The same crazy ups and downs as yesterday, with tired legs. At a cigarette break in the jungle, an old man on a bicycle hands me three potato like big white roots and shows me how to peel and eat them. The kids on the street would wave and scream "Sabaidee" now. Nice welcome! Same wooden pile houses as in Vietnam, but more deforested hills. Unlike 8 years ago, there is electricity everywhere on the road now. But still hardly any traffic. I manage to cycle only 34 miles to Vieng Xai, a small town with no ATM but guesthouses, that is famous for the cave systems in which the Laos Communists lived during the heavy bombings during the Vietnam war. Get a room in a wooden guesthouse on a lake, and coffee, food and beers on credit. Air, a 20 year old relative of the owners, talks good English and teaches me my first few words in Laos, gives me some advices. Manage to change my remaining Vietnam Dong into Kip, just enough to get a bus to Xam Nua on the next day. Need a break from cycling. When I arrive in Xam Nua both ATMs are out of service. It's Saturday, and all banks closed. I'm close to freak out, when a tourist on a bicycle passes by, and tells me about an Indian restaurant where I could possibly get my old dollars exchanged. He's cycling towards Phongsavan tomorrow, he says, and I wouldn't mind some company on my way. A few minutes later the ATM is working again, and I finally receive some KIPs, return back to Vieng Xai. The caves can only be visited with a guide, and I miss the afternoon tour. However, I get some information to read and have a nice walk between the nice limestone rocks. After diner with a nice American motorbike tourist, Air invites me for some barbeque with his friends. Nice moonlight walk, great barbeque and talks about freedom and money dependencies in modern Laos.

I met Paul, the Australian cyclist, in the morning at the Indian Restaurant of Xam Nua. Decent Indian breakfast without Glutamates. We decide to go together towards Phongsavan through the mountains. The first night should be in Nam Neun, more than 80 miles away from here. Paul did that road already by bus, and make proper notes about long ascents with landmarks. So he'd know about that first heavy 10 mile uphill from here, and all the following ups and downs and switchbacks. We decide to take a Songthaew for the first 30 miles, a small truck with two rows of seats in the back, the usual local transport for small distances in remote areas. It takes the truck pretty much two hours to climb the steep road up. From there, its another 50 miles of ups and downs in the thick jungle. Cicada noises, barely traffic, small wooden hut settlements every once in a while, and breathtaking views.

No matter how hard we tried, we don't manage to reach Nam Neun before sunset. Hitching with a manic racing guy in the back of a brand new Hilux pickup. Squealing tyres in the switchbacks. The two of us trying to survive, holding the bicycles thight. When our Formula 1 driver sets us of a a junction, there's a final 7 mile steep downhill ride at sunset. What a feeling! Nam Neun is a sort of disappointing prospering junction towns with little comfort and few smiles and phantasie prices for food. No one would speak English. Anyway – it's Fullmoon and we reached our first target.
On the following day we do something similar for the the remaining distance to Phongsavan, riding the last 30 miles of pretty flat in the burning midday sun and reaching Phongsavan more dead than alive...

Phongsavan is famous for the Plain of Jars, that is about 2000 year old jars made of single pieces of sandstone, some as tall as a human. Bomb craters from the secret war the stories of cruel times here, and numberless of the so-called UXOs, undetonated boms of all sizes, are still out everywhere in the rice paddies and woods, causing severe injuries and many deads still nowadays. We'd see them every once in a while a garden fences in the villages, and in Phongsavan we'd watch some documentary movies on them. Phongsavan is a prospering town too, but with a much better feeling, and many guesthouses and restaurants with much better price-quality ratio than those small junction towns we passed by.

Temple in PhongSavan

Two more days to go towards Vang Vieng, cycling in the morning and hitching small trucks after lunchtime to avoid the burning sun. Breathtaking views again, endless chains of mountains, sea of clouds, stone-age villages with good vibes. Last day – 70 miles left to go towards Vang Vieng. Heavy rain at night and thick mist in the early morning hours. paul#s gonna wait for better weather he says. I'm eager to leave that "prospering" junction town we're at. 13 miles downhill, 2 miles uphill. Coffee break with a cute red cat on my lap. I spot two German trucks on the road. Big "Servus", nice talking, a swim in the public hot spring pond just beside the road. They'd give me a lift, I'm very happy about this since the skin on my bottom has already gone...

Temple jembees, to big for my bag

Reaching Vang Vieng almost 8 years after I've been here the first time, I just don't recognize this place at all anymore. That sleepy tranquil wooden bar village has developed into a big number of concrete guesthouses, internet cafes and restaurants with English speaking TV all day. And numberless loud bars at night. Find a relaxed and good-priced guesthouse 2 miles outside and enjoy a nice sunset behind the limestone rocks on the other side of the river, with flocks of young backpackers floating by on big tubes, yelling and screaming and drinking...

Well, the famous tubing - you'd get a lift few miles upstream, sit sort of helpless in shorts in the burning sun and wait for the river to take you down to town again. There is a section of wooden bars cramped closely to each other on both sides of the otherwise tranquil Song river with load music roaring from big speakers all day. Advertisements for cheap „buckets“, mud volleyball and these kind of activities. Later in town, you can watch bandaged and limping youngsters that survived the adventure. It's said that during rainy season when the river is more wild, some wouldn't return. And it is easy to understand why the locals don't mind – it's just so much money that is spend on alcohol every day...

The good thing with Vang Vieng is the beauty of the nature surrounding it,with less silly entertainment like kayaking, climbing, trekking... As well as good prices and the wide choice for food and accommodation. Finally I found quiet and peaceful moments in a cave and on top of a hill with no one there but me and my cycling mate.

Running short of remaining visa days and eager to spend a few lazy days in Southern Laos, I leave Vang Vieng by local bus for Vientiane, with my bicycle mounted to the roof of the old roaring bus. Just do a quick 7 mile ride on the bike through the kind of exploding, prospering Vietntiane City to the Souther Bus terminal, and luckily there's a VIP bus waiting already to bring me to Thakek. A long day on busses, yet quite pleasant after all. Aircon not to fierce, not rip-offs – perfect.

Thakek is, according to Lonely Planet, a nice town on the Mekong with lots of caves and a remarkable National park neighbouring it. I arrive after sunset, find me a little appealing place to stay for the same price as my hotel in Vang Vieng. I decide to skip the marvelous caves and limestone rocks and cycle towards Xeno instead, 65 miles down towards Pakse. Flat area, shadowless straight road, and only a few trucks and cars passing by while I'm sweating in the burning sun, fighting the headwinds and my laziness. When the legs refuse the pedalling, I hitch and a Thai pickup gives me a lift for the last 10 miles to Xeno. A bus bound for Pakse is supposed to leave there at 6PM. 130 miles to go - I might be there by 10 PM I hope. Spend a beautiful sunset with Tai Chi, and with some small kids eager to imitate. Good vibes in this town. The bus arrives and departs in time, yet takes a different road at the junction. Al right, detour via Savanaketh. It comes worse then, as the bus stops every once in a while for no obvious reason. Enough cigarette breaks anyway. When I wake up at 4, everyone is sleeping in the bus that is just parked at a gas station. A little later, the engine starts and we arrive in Pakse at dawn. That is, we spent the night just half an hour away from the destination...

In a guided tour with two Dutch travellers, an English lady and a Swiss I get to visit the Bolovan plateau some 2 miles east of Pakse. Hiking through its Coffee plantations, its rocky pine forests and waterfalls below in the jungle. Swimming in the electrifying and cold water of the ponds underneath the first fall, having a gorgeous picnic on the rocky riverbank of one of the rivers on top of a second waterfall with the best Lao food I've had so far. Wading across rivers, climbing up and down rather invisible trails. Sunset, a marvellous red glowing sky. What was supposed to be an easy hike for a few hours turned into quite a challenge now. Luckily, everyone has a torch. Still a good hour to sneak through the jungle. Leeches on the legs, snakes in the trees. Me (stupid as usual) in Flipflops. Guides seem to be confused and lead us around in big circles as it appears. Everyone is happy when we reach the village with the Songtheaw to bring us back to Pakse.

Next station is Champasak, an easy half days ride away from Pakse down the Mekong. Champasak is known for its ancient Wat Phu Khmer settlement and temple ruins that are certainly worth stopping over for a day on the way down to the 4000 Islands. It's a rather small town stretching along the quiet main road with a few neat resorts on the Mekong, a perfect place to chill-out.

By chance, I met a few girls that share the same idea – going down the Mekong by boat. For 20 USD each we get a 7 hours boat ride to Don Det in a decent Longtail boats with sunroof, curtains and rattan chairs. The river flows. Terrace plantations, small wooden huts and great trees with eroded roots on the sandy riverbanks. Sarah’s Ukulele plays “The ring of fire”, and makes me stay on the island for 10 splendid and peaceful days. Wonderful sunrises and sunsets, followed by moonset and shooting stars. Dreams become true...

Leaving Don Det, leaving Laos on the bike. Bound for Stung Treng in Cambodia, roughly 60 miles to ride. Some odd stamp fees for both Laos and Cambodia border guards, spreading wealth for corrupt officers. Sarah waits for her bus there to depart, and looks forward to get a bicycle for herself to end the misery of the tourist track with me on bicycles.

An endless shadowless paved road with few settlements in the flat, hardly cultivated nor forested land. Sun is burning mad. A stopover at noon at a little shop with a very friendly family that invites me to lunch. I learn a first few phrases of Khmer since they speak Lao, and they even let me nap for half an hour on their wooden benches.

Sarah and I meet in Stung Treng, a neat town on the estuary of Sekong and Mekong. The following day, we buy a used mountain bike for 60 Dollar and prepare for our first ride together to Ratanakiri in Northeast Cambodia. Sarah manages the torture of the dirt road well, cycling approximately 30 miles in the heat and the dusty clouds of thundering by trucks and buses. Since there are no guesthouses until Banlung and there is no chance we can do the remaining 40 miles, we decide to hitch the remaining distance – taking it easy. Banlung is a small friendly town in the mountains, with beautiful waterfalls and a volcanic lake. We spend three nights in an Eco lodge in the jungle outside of town, roaming around by bicycle and feet through the forests, rubber tree plantations with black trunks, cashew trees and little villages. Shower underneath a waterfall, a red gloaming sunset on the volcanic lake. Splendid days and nights without electricity, cooking with the staff of the Eco lodge, playing the Ukulele and singing old songs from Johnny Cash, Lee Hazelwood and Terry Jack. Priceless...  When we arrive back in Stung Treng, Sarah rode already more than 60 miles, and she's eager to go on by bicycle. What a girl!

Elated by the good experience of the rehersal ride to Ratanakiri, Sarah and I decide to go on the dirt roads via Tbeng Menchey, Prasat Prev Viher and Koh Ker towards Siem Reap and the temple ruins of Angkor. With a few information on road conditions, expected mileages and opportunities where to sleep we cross the Mekong by ferry and immediately enter a fairytale land with small but good dirt roads through the forests. A view very friendly villages on the way, and almost no traffic at all. During the breaks Sarah sometimes plays Ukulele and we sing with the kids, sometimes we just make fun with them. Their smiles and the Sugar cane juices are our fuel – it all works out perfectly. The first night, we are very happy to stay in a small village in some locals house after cycling about 55 miles on dirt roads and no chance to get anywhere else anymore. Brave Sarah! The second night, we arrive in Tbeng Mengchey, a nice market town, and decide to spend Christmas Day here. No funny Christmas trees, just two other “Farang”. We call our parents and celebrate the day with good lunch, a swim in the nearby river and splendid evening on the veranda of our guest house. Our next destination is Prasat Prev Viher, the UNESCO World Heritage close to the Thai border in the North. Another day on dirt roads, a lift for the last 30 miles to Sa Aem, a little junction town with guest houses. We spare an entire day for the temple ruins with the most unspeakable ascents I've ever tried on the bike on the last 3 miles uphill. Army officers invite me for shrimp and rice wine at the top. Great temple ruins and stunning views from the mountain. Little shadow since there are barely any trees up here, and big clouds of smoke down in the lowlands indicate current deforestation projects.

Koh Ker turned out to be the much nicer site of temple ruins on the way, with many temples scattered on a 8 miles circuit track in the woods. Piles of rubble between the still standing walls of the temples, giant trees taking over the crazy materialized dream of a single emperor who did not want to life in the Angkor area and decided to have his own capital build in just 20 years about 80 miles away instead. Rich carvings and ornaments on the sand stones, pieces of the construction look like petrified robot heads, unable to smile nor to scream. The spirit of the emperor seems to be all around us. Really really impressive! Only a few other tourists were there, and the neighbouring village Soryong was very welcoming with great street food on the small market and a nice wooden guest house.

On the next day, we make our way further towards Siem Reap, reaching at the Beng Mealea temple site at lunch time. Still overwhelmed by yesterdays temple site plus little invited by the crazy prices of the tourist restaurants, we decide to skip the ruins and move on. A few miles further down the road we enjoy a tasty street food for a fifth of the prices of those restaurants before, plus the company of the smiling local kids. Just 30 miles to go from the junction town on the National Route 6 where we sleep that night, and an easy ride into Siem Reap on the following morning. We made it – yeeha!

New Years Eve in Siem Reap – heaps of tourists of all colors crowding in the famous Pub- and Restaurant streets. Loud music from hugh speakers between the pubs, yet I find it rather hard to connect, hard to cope with. On the way back to our hotel, we dance on the street with some tuktuk drivers to the Cambodian pop music from their car stereo until the battery is empty. That's much more the spirit – happy New Year!

The center of Siem Reap which feels like a different planet compared to any other place we've been to in Cambodia so far. Roaming around, we find some local shops with reasonable prices for food a few kilometers away the Dollar-priced restaurants on the Old Market and feel more comfortable.

With 3 respectively 7 day Angkor passes we start our mission to visit a few of the countless temple sites that are scattered around Siem Reap on our bicycles. The paved road through the woods around the temples North of Siem Reap is crowded by Tuktuks and buses, yet quite pleasant to ride with lots of shadow. Few more tourists bother to explore the area by bicycle. We start with the “Big Loop”, visit only a few of the 1000 year old complexes of temple ruins. We marvel upon both, the skillfull and rich decorated walls and the sheer size of the complexes as well as the mighty trees dwelling on the walls, reaching for the blue sky as well as the architects of these temples did. Certainly, this is impressive. Nature has taken over what man thought would last forever. How small are we under the skies, beneath the many hundred year old treetops? In front of the main attractions are small restaurants, shops and all sorts of salesman and -children, repeating their kind of pitying sales mantras: “Hello you buy water from me?” “You buy my book please”. Nevertheless, the restaurant shops are good shelters for the burning sun during lunchtime, and usually have hammocks in the back for a nap. With our little Khmer bargaining skills we manage to get descent prices for our meals. Taking it easy, sparing the main sites (Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom) for a later visit, we head for a temple on a hill for sunset. With stream of other tourist we slowly wander uphill, to find that Pyramid-shaped building with its big steep stairs as crowded as a festival location. Nice sunset anyway, and a sort of street-fight ride back to town between the buses and motorbikes and tuktuks in the dark.

Two days later we escape Siem Reap, aiming for Kbal Speang - the ancient Shiva and Vishnu carvings in a riverbed 35 miles away in the Kulen mountains. Due to our excessive lunch break we arrive just before the entry to the jungle trail is closed at 3 PM. Completely unaware that we have to spent a day of our Angkor passes for this, we decide to wait until the Officials have gonna and a police man took over. An English-speaking Tuktuk driver handles the bribing deal and we finally get in. Incredibly nice jungle trek over roots, sandstone rocks and wild shaped climbing trees uphill to the carvings in the riverbed. We have the entire area for ourselfes, just a few visitors are already on their way back. A local Guide girl shows us some more or less hidden carvings and brings us to the waterfall that we would have certainly missed without her help. The combination of the carvings, the hugh rocks and the waterfall in the middle of the primary forest are beathtaking. Shower time underneath the waterfall.

We reach the entry point just after sunset. Unsure where to sleep, we ask the last remaining restaurant lady. She wouldn't know, yet tells us about a German who's living nearby, points at a gate. A Wildlife Rescue Center it is. An English-speak local comes out of it, tells us the German isn't here and advices us to stay in the neighboring Police station, with is just a tiny thatched roof wood house. He manages all the communication with the police man, and after endless phone calls the deal is settled, we can stay overnight. A restaurant owner is called to cook us food. I can already feel where this leads us too – funny prices. 5 Dollars per meal – that's even more than in Siem Reaps real restaurants, and 3 Dollars for a bottle of beer which Sarah and I definitly need now. While having Diner, a dozen policeman roll in with cars and pickup trucks. Some wearing machine guns, and everyone is drinking. The guys remain outside of the light, curiously muster Sarah and me. That doesn't feel well at all. After a while, the boss starts to tell us we were to be carried to the main police station, since we were not allowed to stay here. We seem to be in the wrong movie now, try to discuss the matter. Finally, we are allowed to start another attempt to reach the people in the Wildlife Center to ask permission to stay there. Big German Shepard dogs bark in the dark. Luckily, someone comes out, hears our story and allows us to stay. The people in the center have had a few incidents with these police men already. Lucky lucky - happy end to something that has never happened to me before, and that could have turned out really odd.

On the following day, we thank our hosts and head back towards Siem Reap, visit the well reconstructed and nearby temple site of Bantay Srei with its beautiful carvings and sculptures on the way, plus a few less frequented sites in the main Angkor Area. Sarah plays Ukulele in the ruins for sunset. "Image All The People Living Live in Peace" - Happy End!